Truman, MacArthur and all that…

June 2, 2009

Things have taken a decidedly military turn over at Andreas Kluth’s always fascinating Hannibal Blog, with a discussion on the lessons of Clausewitz, followed by one on strategy, tactics, and leadership.

Andreas picks out the Korean war spat between General Douglas MacArthur and President Truman on the advisability of  using nuclear weapons.  MacArthur, under pressure on the battlefield, favoured expanding the war into China, using nuclear weapons if necessary. Truman disagreed, and MacArthur, iconic American hero, was unceremoniously sacked. 

As Andreas sees it, the problem is that MacArthur was fighting tactically, focused on the immediate battlefield. Truman, however, saw the big strategic picture and didn’t want to escalate for fear of bringing in the Soviets. Strategy should trump tactics, and so MacArthur had to go.

For me, though, the main lesson is not about tactics versus strategy – I think the spat was about strategy, on which the two men had conflicting perspectives. It’s what the episode tells us about leadership and personality, not strategy and tactics, that captures my attention. 

The dispute opens up interesting territory about tensions between civilian and military leadership in war. But there’s a danger here: excessive reductivism.  

I’ve just been reading Bernard Brodie’s classic book, War and Politics. Brodie’s thesis is that while there’s always the potential for clashing military and civilian perspectives on war, the civilian should always triumph. He was writing in 1973, in the shadow of the Vietnam war.

There’s a chapter in his book on Korea, in which Brodie excoriates MacArthur:

Such men are dangerous. One almost has to be grateful to MacArthur for finally making himself so flagrantly and publicly insubordinate as to provoke dismissal  from his patient and too long abused President.

Truman, though, doesn’t escape completely. Brodie is sure that US forces could have made much deeper inroads into the Communist forces under MacArthur’s replacement Matthew Ridgway. With new commanders in place, US forces were soon on the front foot, blunting Communist offensives with such effectiveness that they were ‘ripe for destruction’. But then came orders from Washington not to press home their advantage. As Brodie writes:

I have hitherto been stressing the all-important idea that politics must control strategy, but this conception does not exclude the need for responsiveness to feedback from the fighting fronts.  In this case the military situation could not have been better.

 The tension between military and political perspectives is always with us. We see it in the Cuban missile crisis; in the conduct of coercive bombing in Vietnam; in the dispute between Rumsfeld and Shinseki over Iraq. We see it in the UK too, in the relationship between Downing Street and General Dannatt, Chief of the General Staff.

But there are big two problems with this picture. First, as Brodie notes, politics should properly have primacy, but that doesn’t excuse politicians from not reflecting adequately on the advice of their military subordinates. They must make themselves sufficiently involved and informed in military affairs to have a sensible perspective on strategic issues.

Second, characterising tension as being primarily between military and civilian mindsets, which we often do, risks oversimplifying the range of factors involved.

Sometimes in war and politics, where you stand depends on where you sit – as Graham Allison argued in his classic book – but sometimes it doesnt.

In Korea, MacArthur and many of his subordinate commanders favoured expanding the conflict. But back in Washington, it wasn’t simply Truman against the military: the Chiefs also saw things the President’s way. Samuel Huntington (yes, that one) tells the story in his great account of US civil-military relations, The Soldier and the State:

The extent to which the generals as a group of field commanders were out of sympathy with the policy of the government probably had few precedents in American history.

And yet, once the Administration had resolved that the Korean war would have limited aims, which in turn would limit the approach to operations,

all the civilian and military leaders of the administration – the President, Acheson, Marshall, Lovett, Bradley, the Joint Chiefs – were in agreement on this fundamental concept.

Not all Generals think alike – for every Franks, there is a Shinseki. Nor do all civilians – Rumsfeld and Gates have dramatically different views on the utility of force.

In the end, bureaucratic and organisational loyalties are just part of an individual’s personality. Truman wasn’t just any President, and MacArthur was much more than just another sabre rattling General. As Truman himself said:

Men make history , and not the other way around.


2 Responses to “Truman, MacArthur and all that…”

  1. Cheri said

    I would be interested in your thoughts about the North Korean situation at hand and how other generals, or civilians for that matter, might have approached this dicey (and potentially grave) turn of events.

  2. Hi Cheri,

    Very delayed response – sorry. I don’t check the comments here, as it’s just a mirror site for my main blog:

    In fact, if I can figure it out, I’d best disable the comments here.

    It’s always difficult to make convincing counterfactual arguments; and also to attempt predictions of how events will turn out. But North Korea has been playing this game for a long time, and US administrations of various stripes have struggled to adopt a strategy that goes beyond sanctions, multilateral negotiations, and public chastisement. Short of serious instability in the North, or overtly hostile military action by it, I can’t really see that situation changing much, whichever US policymakers or military officials we imagine in power.

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